CAIRO – Weeks before President Barack Obama suggested that Muslims should speak out to change wrong perceptions filled out by media, Moina Shaiq, a Bay Area American Muslim, decided to start by herself, organizing lively meet a Muslim events to break down barriers.
“I thought, how do I reach out to ordinary people on the street … who want to meet a Muslim face-to-face and be able to ask any question without being judged or intimidated?” she told San Francisco Chronicle.
“I have heard this time and time again, where people say that they have never met a Muslim.”
Seeing increasing attacks targeting Muslims, and build on misconceptions, Shaiq decided to start a new initiative to change the perception of American Muslims.
The need for such dialogue was urged after recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Comments made by Republican presidential hopefuls, including Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have also added to the gloomy image.
Launched her first event, Shaiq chose local coffee shops as a neutral place and thought maybe a few people would show up.
In this first night, more than 100 people, mostly non-Muslims, came to Suju’s Coffee & Tea in Fremont.
The second event, last Monday, is at a Round Table Pizza shop in Fremont.
During the gathering in Fremont event, a man standing in the crowd asked, “One of the issues that I see from my vantage point — Bay Area Muslims have not taken a stand, for example, against ISIS,” referring to the so-called Islamic State.
A woman seated nearby said, “Yes! Yes!” and clasped her hands together as the man continued: “Why is it Bay Area Muslims have not come out and said we dissociate ourselves from ISIS?”
Shaiq told the man in Mission Coffee that Muslim Americans had stood strongly against terrorism, repeatedly and publicly.
“Every single time — ISIS or not ISIS — that there is any Muslim terrorism attack anywhere in the world, all Muslims organizations from A to Z, immediately send out a press release condemning it,” she said.
“The other side of the story is this: Why is it that Muslims are always expected to say sorry for something that some people are doing?”
Debates during Shaiq events varied with many asking why were Muslim women oppressed in Islam?
“Let me tell you, women are not oppressed in Islam at all,” she said. “In fact they have more rights — again, there is faith and then there is culture.
“We see so much oppression, and we see so many things happening,” she continued, “like in Saudi Arabia women don’t have the right to drive — but that’s one country. There are 50 Muslim countries in the world, and we only hear about one country.”
The question was raised during Mission Coffee event last Monday, headed by Shaiq and two fellow panelists; Azam Khan, a technology content strategist from Fremont, and Jehan Hakim, a San Leandro resident and San Francisco State student.
Some audience members used the forum to loudly proclaim their support for the panelists.
“I’d like to add this to the discussion!” said an elderly man after an exchange between Khan and a guest about mentions of violence in the Qur’an.
“There’s no group of human beings that’s ever been perfect with their fellow man. It’s not about us and them — it is about all of us! You get nutjobs anywhere!”
Others came to know more about Islam from Muslims. Joyce Hessler is one of them.
“I feel more open about Islam,” she said after the event.
“I feel better inside, and I’ve learned a little bit here. … It’s hard to approach someone you don’t know about, so this makes it easier to be able to approach somebody that’s Muslim.”
Najia Punjsheri, a 29-year-old woman who lives in San Jose, hopes the events change misconceptions about Islam and her Hijab.
Though she started donning the hijab a decade ago, she’s noticed a difference in how people treat her. They are “more scared or really jittery” when they see her on the street.
“They act different, they stare longer, and you know there’s a difference. … Before I didn’t feel like that,” she said.
Yet, she believed those gathering would help change this atmosphere, even if the questions are at times confrontational.
“Some of them can feel offensive to Muslims — we’re not all crazy, we’re not all out to go hurt people — and I feel it’s good for people to come face-to-face with what their fears are and actually put it out there and have us clarify,” she said.
“It makes people less scared. It makes people more knowledgeable. It demolishes ignorance, which is sometimes where we harbor our fears.”
Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank on American Muslim issues, and who attended Obama’s speech, praised the events as making real change.
“Change happens one person at a time, incrementally. Some people are so focused on the soundbites that they forgot that we have to reach hearts and minds, and that takes trust, and trust requires sincerity and patience.
“This activity isn’t just strategically savvy,” he said of Shaiq’s event. “It’s the right thing to do.”